Global Manufacturing and the “Silver Tsunami”

Global Manufacturing and the “Silver Tsunami”

Manufacturing is changing fast. Skilled labor is running out. Where do we go next?

Even as manufacturing is credited as being a driving force behind economic recovery both here and abroad, we can’t help but notice a growing rift in what is arguably the most important foundation to any developed nation.

To put it bluntly, the highly skilled labor pool is also an aging labor pool. Yes,  it’s also an experienced, mature, dedicated labor pool, but the fact remains that those workers won’t be around forever.

Many describe the looming retirement of the boomer generation as the “Silver Tsunami.”   No matter what you call it,  this global phenomenon is a fast approaching reality. In order to survive it, many manufacturers must adjust to changing conditions today while continuing to foster growth and embrace the developments of tomorrow.

The “Silver Tsunami” is a Rising Tide of Different Needs

Anyone can sit behind a desk and speculate on the best solution to accommodating an aging workforce, but why not  get it right from the horse’s mouth?

BMW turned to its workers for feedback, and as a result invest around $50k in some 70  improvements to their Dingolfing, Germany plant – if you’re keeping track, that’s less than the sticker price on a well-equipped 3-series, and that number includes time lost to implementing all the changes.  In return, they’ve noted a number of quantifiable improvements including a productivity increase of 7% and a defect rate of 0.

You read that right.  A defect rate of ZERO.

Not only has the investment repaid itself quickly, but think of the effect this has on morale: assembly workers are not only more comfortable physically, but they are happier knowing their employer is willing to take the time to listen and work with them to improve their working conditions. After all, no amount of marketing smarts and engineering innovation makes a difference if you can’t keep a strong, happy workforce to produce a high-quality finished product.

The right combination of research and real feedback worked well for BMW.  What do you think? Is your operation facing similar problems?  What have you done/ are you doing to accommodate these changes?

But, Don’t Forget About the Future

Supporting manufacturing education for the future is as important as adapting to the needs of the current workforce.

As much as any of us can do to improve conditions for the current workforce, we can’t stop the fact that some day those workers will inevitably retire.  As a matter of fact, IndustryWeek released an article earlier this week suggesting manufacturing could lose 40% of its skilled labor force in the next 5 years. (NOTE: I definitely recommend checking that link out – excellent insight on the whole situation)

So, as important as it is to make the best of what we have, to appreciate and foster the growth of the workers we employ, it is equally as important to “keep filling the funnel” with up-and coming new talent to learn the ropes, master, and carry on the swiftly evolving craft.

Fortunately, there are a number of manufacturing industry non-profits and professional organizations working hard to encourage the growth of manufacturing education.  We are equally fortunate to have some stand-up industry voices ready to fight back against those who only help perpetuate the misconceptions about manufacturing as a whole.

Everything we can do to praise and support manufacturing as a venerable career is everything we can do to save ourselves in the long run: whether its contributing to the right organizations, fostering growth and continued learning within our own walls, encouraging mentoring and apprenticeship for future generations, or simply standing up for ourselves when we need to.

It’s not an easy battle, but it’s also one we can’t afford to lose.